Revolutionary person known for one thing who should be known for something else?
And the winner is Benedict Arnold, almost universally known as one of the greatest traitors of them all while Horatio Gates keeps getting credit as the “hero of Saratoga.” In reality, Arnold was the true hero of Saratoga, if field leadership in actual combat means anything. But Congress chose to honor Gates on faulty information, and many historians have been doing so ever since. Surely Arnold could not have made such an important contribution, given his traitorous behavior at a later date.
–James Kirby Martin
Major General Israel Putnam commanded a stellar reputation at the beginning of the War. ‘Old Put’ had his supporters and detractors but an article I’m currently writing separates myth from reality to show that he probably should have sat this War out. From Bunker Hill to Brooklyn to the Hudson Highlands Putnam may have done more harm than good and, at the least, tried to shore up his reputation through questionable events.
I have to go with my field of study and identify a population rather than an individual on this one: the British private soldier. Countless books, articles and other writings mistakenly assert that most of these men were either conscripts or criminals. While there are a few individual examples of each, they were special cases. The vast majority of British soldiers were average working-class men who voluntarily chose the army as a career.
British general Henry Clinton as an irascible, timid, and barely competent commander. This originated with criticism from Lord Cornwallis and was cemented by William B. Willcox, Clinton’s biographer. In fact, Clinton was the most capable British strategist in America. He argued against a frontal assault at Bunker Hill, urging instead an amphibious landing on Charlestown Neck behind the American defenses. It was his idea to outflank Washington’s army at Brooklyn, and he tried to convince Howe to advance up the Hudson River in 1777 to support Burgoyne, but Howe rejected the advice. Clinton’s siege and capture of Charleston in 1780 were brilliantly executed. Clinton was not someone you’d want to hang out with for fun, but he possessed great military skill.
Ben Franklin. Many people think they know everything about Franklin. Usually they talk about the experiments with electricity, the stove, the organizations he founded in Philadelphia, or his work in Congress. The more I search into Franklin in Paris, I am amazed at how he played the French getting them to formally join in the fight for American independence. He became the rock star of France and his game of deception against British and French spies was brilliant.
Benedict Arnold. He’s known to most people as a traitor. But he was also a very good general, whose victories were crucial to the success of the Revolution. Especially important was his performance at Saratoga.
I like John Dickinson for this question. It is so unfortunate that he is known primarily for his role in arguing against the Declaration of Independence. So much so that people tend to forget the man was no Tory. Indeed, John Dickinson should be known as the very celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer whose series of Letters published in 1767 and 1768 kept the fires of revolution alive during the difficult years following the Stamp Act Crisis. At that time most people felt victorious and vindicated over the British tax policy and only a very few Patriots remained steadfast in calling for continued unity in opposition. After all, “If the parliament may lawfully deprive New-York of any of her rights, it may deprive any, or all the other colonies of their rights * * * To divide, and thus to destroy, is the first political maxim in attacking those, who are powerful by their union.” [John Dickinson, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Letter No. 1, 5 November 1768, found in Merrill Jensen, Tracts of the American Revolution 1763 – 1776, (Univ of Wisconsin, USA 1966), 132.]
No American name is as synonymous with treason as is Benedict Arnold. But yet had Arnold died of his leg wound at Saratoga, there is little doubt that he would be remembered as one of the greatest American heroes. He had been General Washington’s go-to attack officer for assaults upon Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec; and few historians doubt that he had personally turned the tide for American victory at Saratoga. The Continental Army victory there opened the door for French intervention, making the difference in the United States winning the war.
Although Arnold carried life-long, deep-rooted feelings of being slighted and unappreciated, it most likely was Mrs. Arnold, (Loyalist) Peggy Shippen, who finally nudged Arnold toward selling out his country for cash and a British uniform. That’s too bad. Following the war, even the British didn’t care for Arnold. But before his betrayal, Arnold was a fearless, inspiring American officer.
We sometimes lose sight of Washington as a businessman, farmer, and speculator, or of the long legal careers of John Adams and Hamilton. But a bigger problem is that Revolutionary figures get “lost.” Hamilton was nearly forgotten for 75 years after his death and if not forgotten, Adams was neglected for nearly a century until an array of historians resurrected him in recent years. Then there is Jefferson. For a couple of generations now Jefferson has been stripped of his identity except as a slaveowner and alleged paramour of Sally Hemings. While it is essential to understand those sides of Jefferson, it is crucial too to remember him as a thinker and political activist, to try to understand what shaped his thinking, what the American Revolution meant to him, and why he was so alarmed by Hamiltonianism in the 1790s.
Consider Martha Washington. Many today still visualize her visiting among sick soldiers huddled in their huts, perhaps praying with the men, or taking them food. But neither she, nor General Washington, nor any credible contemporary of Lady Washington mention her mingling with the rank and file soldiers. Tales of Mrs. Washington among the common soldiers surface in the romantic 19th century, decades after the Revolutionary War, primarily through the creative story-telling of George Washington Parke Custis, Elizabeth Ellet, and Benson John Lossing. Instead of visualizing Martha Washington bending low in a hut, consider her bouncing along in a carriage while traveling to a Revolutionary War encampment, journeying away from camp, or at one of the eight encampments of the war. Mrs. Washington spent five years of the war away from Mount Vernon supporting the General and the cause of freedom. That’s dedication. That’s the real Martha Washington.
Deborah Sampson donned a fake uniform and on May 20, 1782, she enlisted in the Continental Army under the name of Robert Shurtlieff Sampson, her deceased brother. She joined the 4th Massachusetts regiment representing the town of Uxbridge. Sampson’s gender was not discovered even when she was shot twice in the thigh and suffered a severe cut on the forehead in a skirmish at Tarrytown New York. She treated herself to keep her sex secret. Only when she became sick with a malignant fever a few months later was her secret revealed to a doctor.
However, her service as a soldier continued and she was promoted to the prestigious position of aide to General John Patterson and received pensions from both the Massachusetts and Federal governments for her war service. In the end, she was known for being a good soldier who served her country with distinction.
Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), merchant from Marblehead, was on Massachusetts’s Committee of Supplies in the winter of 1774-75, collecting the arms and food that let provincial troops stand up to the Crown forces. Elected to the Continental Congress, Gerry voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1787 he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention but declined to sign its final document because it didn’t guarantee local and individual rights. Gerry served in the federal Congress and then as a diplomat, one of the three men in the “XYZ Affair.” He was elected governor of Massachusetts, then Vice President under Madison, dying in office.
Despite that long and significant career, we remember Gerry mainly because in 1812 Federalist newspapers used his name to coin the word “gerrymander” for a legislative district shaped for political advantage.
Patrick Henry was a rousing orator, but he did not write the speech that ended, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” the iconic declamation that IDs him in textbooks. He might in fact have said those words (Christopher Gadsden had been using that catchy line since 1765), but he certainly did not deliver the 1,217 words within that speech, which was composed by William Wirt four decades later. When Wirt embarked on his biography of Henry, he bemoaned the fact that, in his own words, “from 1763 to 1789 … not one of his speeches lives in print, writing or memory.” So Wirt, an orator in his own right, drafted the awesome call-to-arms we celebrate today. More on this in a future article.